Jan 16, 2023 7:00 AM
Twitter Is a Megaphone for ‘Sudden Death’ Vaccine Conspiracies
When British radio DJ Tim Gough passed away suddenly during a broadcast in October 2022, his friend and colleague James Hazell barely had time to mourn before the trolling began. “They didn’t even give him time to go cold. They were straight on it with some vile messages,” Hazell says.
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists seized upon Gough’s death, reportedly from a suspected heart attack, and turned his Twitter and Instagram feeds into a storm of disinformation and abuse. “Don’t worry. Safe and very very effective. Perfect for euthanasia also!!!! [sic],” one Twitter user posted. “Death vax,” wrote another. Gough’s accounts, and the Twitter feed of GenX Radio in Suffolk, UK, where he and Hazell worked, were “besieged with abuse,” Hazell says. “They didn’t seem to care about the actual situation of a human dying.”
Gough’s is just one of dozens of sudden deaths and medical emergencies that have been exploited by anti-vaccine campaigners, who claim—without evidence—that Covid shots are to blame. It is a tactic they have used before, but analysis by misinformation experts shows that Twitter, which has stopped policing Covid-19 misinformation and restored thousands of previously banned accounts, has helped supercharge the narrative since Elon Musk took over the platform in October 2022.
“It has opened the floodgates for conspiracy theorizing and misinformation,” says Timothy Graham, a misinformation expert at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia.
Twitter did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. The company reportedly no longer has a media team.
In recent months, conspiracy theorists have gravitated toward the news of several high-profile deaths, including that of singer Terry Hall, from British ska band The Specials, in December. Illnesses that have been baselessly blamed on the vaccine include a suspected heart attack—in fact, a panic attack— suffered by musician Rod Stewart’s 11-year-old son, and an eye condition that hospitalized singer Tom Fletcher, from the pop group McFly. In January 2023, anti-vaxxers claimed without basis that the death of musician Lisa-Marie Presley, from a suspected heart attack, was due to her having taken the vaccine.
In the US, NFL player Damar Hamlin’s mid-game collapse after a cardiac arrest in January prompted a tsunami of conspiratorial claims attributing his illness to Covid-vaccine-induced myocarditis. While some vaccines have been found to cause inflammation of the heart, experts say cases are rare and usually short-lived, and Covid itself is more likely to cause myocarditis than the vaccine. Studies also indicate that cardiac arrest was a leading cause of unexplained deaths among athletes well before the vaccine rollouts. Tests to determine the cause of Hamlin’s cardiac arrest are reportedly ongoing.
Anti-vaxxers have shared montage videos and posts spotlighting sports people collapsing throughout the pandemic. But the problem has grown on the platform under Musk, with the average volume of hourly “died suddenly” tweets at least doubling since the start of December last year, according to data compiled by Graham.
“The ‘sudden deaths’ trope is perhaps the most salient of the false Covid narratives circulating now, and the most dangerous from a public health perspective,” Graham says, warning that it can lead to vaccine refusal or hesitancy, which could result in higher death rates from the virus.
Graham led research in November and early December that found Covid misinformation surged on Twitter after the platform lifted its ban on misleading health information. Since January 1, new analysis by Graham shows there have been more than 326,000 tweets and retweets containing “died suddenly” or “#DiedSuddenly,” with a spike of 5,000 in one hour on January 3.
By reinstating suspended accounts, Graham says, Musk has sent a message that Twitter is a safe place for harmful Covid conspiracy theories.
Those previously banned after sharing disputed Covid claims include prominent vaccine critic and cardiologist Peter McCullough, who has since promoted the sudden death narrative on Twitter.
Twitter’s new approach to verifying accounts has also helped make the platform a “breeding ground for misinformation,” according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which monitors disinformation. Before Musk took over, users were granted “verified” blue checkmarks if the company assessed them as being significant voices. In November, Twitter began allowing eligible users to buy verification for $8 a month, giving them extra features and prioritization in conversations.
Before the takeover, Twitter partnered with news organizations to identify misleading conversations and the platform highlighted notable information from reliable sources. It has since launched its Community Notes feature, which allows users to add context to tweets.
A CCDH analysis of nearly 60,000 tweets posted between November 9, when the new verification scheme launched, and December 12 found that 30 percent of posts from Twitter Blue users containing the word “vaccine” featured misinformation.
Paid-for blue checks may have helped give credibility to accounts that boosted the viral film Died Suddenly. The movie was produced by Stew Peters, a right-wing radio host known for spreading conspiracy theories, and premiered on November 21. Its content, which has been widelydebunked, threaded together dozens of news stories about people who died unexpectedly with montages of people collapsing to claim that Covid vaccines are killing people en masse. Some of the deaths featured, including Gough’s, were demonstrably unrelated to vaccination. The film was viewed more than 2 million times on Twitter, and many more posts linked to it on the fringe video platform Rumble.
While users can see how Twitter accounts gained the checkmark via their profiles, it’s not immediately obvious while scrolling content. “When a piece of propaganda has a blue tick next to it, people assume it’s something that at the very least has achieved prominence on merit,” CCDH chief executive Imran Ahmed tells WIRED. “Died Suddenly has not achieved prominence on merit.”
Peters did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
The #DiedSuddenly hashtag trended on Twitter after the film’s release and now appears alongside tens of thousands of tweets about people’s deaths.
QUT’s analysis showed that Died Suddenly significantly impacted the spread of Covid misinformation by creating a focal point for other conspiracy theories and their promoters. Allowing the movie to circulate unchecked on Twitter, says Graham, creates a “snowball effect whereby networks of interlinking communities and false narratives gain visibility, and begin to mobilize and grow exponentially.”
As well as potentially discouraging people from getting vaccinated, the conspiracy theories that grow unchecked around sudden tragedies can compound the grief felt by bereaved families.
Victoria Brownworth, a US-based journalist, faced a barrage of abuse on Twitter after posting that her wife, Maddy, died suddenly on November 12 after battling cancer. “I had gone off to work, I came back and there were hundreds and hundreds of people in my ‘mentions,’” Brownworth says. “I was in a very fragile state and I just couldn’t believe people could do that to someone who was grieving, who had just lost someone.”
Brownworth, who is strongly pro-vaccine on Twitter and regularly calls out other users who spread false narratives, says the release of Died Suddenly aggravated the trolling. “I was just so overwhelmed,” she says. “For some of them it wasn’t enough to say she got the vaccine, a lot of them went, ‘Well she deserved it because … I had made [Maddy].’”
GenX Radio’s Hazell confesses he didn’t realize social media trolls were “so weaponized and active” until he endured it firsthand alongside Gough’s relatives. “It was the worst possible thing to happen to a perfectly peaceful, loving family who just lost their father. These Twitter people just pile on and make a bad situation worse.”
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Omar L. Gallaga
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